Overwhelmed. Lost. Ready to Quit. No. How I came back from the brink
About a month ago, I had just released my first game, and according to my research, that puts me ahead of 99% of would be independent game developers. I was happy. I could log on to the Google Play store, search for "Crapsy Bird" and BOOM! There was my game! My logo. My screenshots. A completed project, that I had managed to take from thin air to released In the span of about 6 weeks.
After a week of trying to promote my game, and half heartedly attempting to engage in more social media and get involved in some online indie dev communities, I had an idea for my second game. I actually blogged about it. I had this moment of clarity, and the game gelled in my mind's eye. Right now, I can close my eyes, and see my next game, and it's incredible. But, this cool looking video game is going to be IMMENSE in scope compared to my first offering.
Undaunted by the details, I decided that I had to make a playable prototype as fast as I possibly could. I spent a few days brainstorming ideas - researching similar games, sketching ideas for characters, rough ideas for level design, terrain creation, physics that were critical for some key components of the game, that would create the game's "feel"...etc etc. ... And I actually managed to piece together a playable prototype about 2 weeks after I had first imagined the game.
I was pretty damn happy. It was crude. Pencil sketched characters that would be more suited to an Atari 2600 from the 1970s. "Terrain" that consisted of a 100x100 pixel square that looked like a Windows logo. It was one short level... There was the main character, firing 2 different unique weapons, one of which was a near perfect execution of the key element( I managed to get the coding of the physics just right) of my game, working very well, it was cool to see in action, it was fun, and I had a demo that I could actually start showing people - family, friends, and get some feedback for the next iteration. So far everything sounds great, right? I had an awesome idea for my second game, I went from concept to playable prototype in 2 weeks, and I was off and running. All I had to do was keep adding new features to the prototype as I went along.
My prototype had 1 enemy that moved well, fired projectiles in a certain pattern, spawned properly, and had it's own little personality. "ENEMY 1". So, next on my list was to add ENEMY 2 - ENEMY 10 to the game. I had settled on concept art for ENEMY 2 - 6, but it was not easy for me to design these different ships from scratch, take them from pencil and paper to a nicely rendered image, and give each one of them unique characteristics for weapons, motion, etc etc. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I realized that I had to change a fundamental design element.
Originally, I wanted to have enemies and terrain spawn randomly, sort of an endless runner concept. However, to achieve the result I was after, I was going to have to draw each level by hand, so I could place elements and adjust by hand after play testing. I wanted people to have a sense of progression, if they got stuck at the hard part, they could eventually learn how to get through it with some repetition. And this became the pattern.
Even the simplest addition to the game produced results that I hadn't predicted. I wanted a green projectile for one of my enemies' main weapon. It took me 17 tries to create a damn green square bullet 32x32 pixels, that didn't have any weird shadows and artifacts around its edges. And once I finally got that right, they decided to rotate when they spawned. So I had to go back and recheck my code over and over to figure out what was causing this ghastly unwanted rotation. In that process, I wound up having to change several attributes for other enemies, terrain assets, background images, and my HUD!
Despite these annoyances, I managed to keep going, and I would spend lots of downtime with a notebook, writing down more ideas, code snippets, sketches for various things that needed to be added at some point, and I began writing this "To Do" List, in an effort to bring some order to all this chaos. I also thought it would be good to cross things off this list when they were complete, so I could actually see some sort of progression toward a finished product.
Last week, on 7/15/15, I created this "To Do" list. It took me about 30 minutes to write down 4 pages of things that needed to be done. Some items on the list consisted of a few minutes work, but most of them were evil. One line reads "Achievements - Define/Create". This means I have to come up with 20-100 achievements for this game. For each individual achievement, I have to come up with a title, some art for it, the criteria for unlocking the achievement, a way to track, store, and display total achievement progress, and then I have to add that seamlessly to my code which currently has no placeholder for achievement stuff. Hours of work to complete. This 4 page list probably describes hundreds of hours of work, and it is by no means a complete list. After I wrote it, and looked back over it a few times, I really started to understand what an incredibly large, complicated project this was becoming. Especially for my team. Here at Digital Endeavors, we have One guy. Me.
I remember putting that list down, and falling asleep that night, thinking innocently to myself, "I'll take a break from this for a couple days." When I come back to it, I'll be refreshed, and able to tackle the list, and just keep going until the end of the list. So, I put it all down. I stopped keeping my notebook at arm's reach, I put the game out of my head, stopped thinking about it, stopped searching for assets, stopped watching tutorials.... Just took a break from it. And when I picked up the list a few days ago, I was Lost. I read that damn list, and broke out a fresh sheet of blank paper. I was going to redo the list, break it down, reorganize it, restructure it... Something. I read it again. Usually I will doodle or something and just start stream of conscious writing words until something starts to make sense to me, and I'll revise as I go.
This time.... Was different. It was bad. I sat there and looked at a blank sheet of paper in front of me for over 30 minutes. I kept trying to imagine different ways to look at what I was going to be doing, and I kept drawing a blank. And the longer I sat there, the more overwhelmed I got. I wanted to cry. I wanted to take my notebook with like 50-70 pages of random shit related to this game and burn it. I really got depressed. I just wanted to curl up into a ball and die. I was frustrated and I couldn't see a solution. The tasks to be done just seemed bigger and bigger for one person to do alone, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, this was hopeless. I don't know how long I sat at my desk in this state, but finally, I gave up. I put my pencil down and walked away from it.
I walked into my bedroom and my wife could sense something was bothering me. She asked what was going on, and I told her all about the project, and how big it had gotten, and how impossible it had gotten, and how I couldn't find a way to tackle it. She suggested that I take a break for a few days, she didn't know I had already done just that. I didn't want to quit. This game will be good. It will take time, but I know it will be worth it. But I really wasn't sure of my next step.
I left that list on my list for 2 more days. And this morning, it came to me. I realized that I needed to treat this like a professional project, not a hobby, or some fun nerd activity writing my own game. I gathered all my handwritten documents, sketches, notes, and everything related to this game. I set up several categories for the work I had already completed, like "Enemies" "Terrain" "Hero" and for each category, I started writing every detail that would be needed for that category to be integrated into a complete game environment. Once I define and specify and characterize each category, I will create a new master "To Do" list. It will be modular, and will allow for much greater flexibility if changes or additions are needed at a later stage.
The new list will be much, much longer and more detailed than the old one. But each entry contained in the new list will be a small well defined entity, instead of a vague hodgepodge of tasks that combined to form an overwhelming nightmare.
I know this all seems redundant... Writing nearly the same ideas over and over in different forms. Why bother? I will finish this game. It may take me months, or years, but now that I have managed to reshape my huge insurmountable pile of fuzzy ideas into a detailed plan of action, I know it can be done.
Each day, I will be able to complete several of these concisely laid out tasks. Progress will be made in a large number of small steps. This momentum will keep me focused on my end goal, and allow me to keep working in a more constructive and consistent manner. So after all of this, if you're wondering, "OK, but what's the point?" I'll tell you. Whether it's a game, a job, a school assignment, a chore... Whatever you're facing...sometimes, you are going to feel like it can't be done.
You are all alone against an army of adverse situations, and you don't think you have what it takes to persevere. If you have a vision, if you want to create something, if you want people to experience that sense of wonder that you had in your moment of inspiration, it will take work. Lots of work. Dedication. Everyone in the world has had a billion dollar idea at some time. The people who have actually turned their ideas into billions of dollars have ALL faced tough times. But they kept going. And this is my point.
I know this game will be good. I'm glad I didn't just quit the other day and say "fuck it", because I really was ready to do that. When this game releases, and people download it and play it, they are going to love it. They will have fun, they might get frustrated, there will be some "oohs" and "ahhhs". And they will want to keep playing. I guarantee it. And I refuse to settle for anything else. I can't wait!